Serial entrepreneur Todd Boyman has been a consumer of plant-based foods for more than three decades. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that his business passion and food passion would eventually combine in a new venture. Hungry Planet is a maker of plant-based meats with fewer calories and less fat than conventional meat and other plant-based options. In March of 2023, Todd joined Smart Business Managing Partner Michael Marzec at the St. Louis Smart Business Dealmakers Conference to talk about launching Hungry Planet and why it raised modest capital compared to its unicorn competitors.
Below is a transcript of Boyman's comments, edited for easier readability.
Hi, I'm Todd Boyman, co-founder and CEO of Hungry Planet. We produce plant-based meats. We're known for having the broadest range of meats on the planet. We've got nine different protein types that match the taste, texture, versatility of conventional meat with a healthy profile, and can be used as a one-to-one substitution in all the regular conventional recipes that people are used to. We're based here in St. Louis. We started taking the covers off of what we're doing about three or four years ago. But we started our R&D about 15 years ago.
Todd, I don't know if it's correct to describe Hungry Planet as kind of a slow burn for you, but you've kind of had this cooking for a while. How did the business come about? And how is it that you're sort of leading the charge with the company?
The origins of Hungry Planet were about 15 years or so ago, when my sister Jody, who's a co-founder of the business, and I and some like-minded individuals, just started to think through what impact we could have that would most directly improve people's personal health and the planet's health.
Having eaten plant-based for over 35 years, and been a serial entrepreneur — spent 10 plus years in China, multiple years in Ukraine — there was there was something missing in terms of how can you really touch people's lives in a meaningful way.
So with that, we just started quietly doing some R&D and said, look, trying to convince people to eat plant-based. Nobody wants to be lectured to about their food, right? But coudl we figure out how to perfectly replicate conventional meat from plants? And we decided to do that in St. Louis. I was born and raised here, but I’ve lived all over the world. I came back here to get this started. Being the breadbasket of the world, the ecosystem here is just extraordinary in terms of the inputs that you use to build these types of products. So that's where it started.
We started taking the covers off of this about four years ago, and are delighted to be here in St. Louis. With our foods, we actually had an opportunity with a group about this size, at one of the largest meat companies on the planet four years ago to serve our food without announcing it in advance that it was plant-based. And none of them knew that they were eating plant-based. So for all you know, your meals were Hungry Planet chicken. I'll leave that to you guys to figure out what exactly you're eating today.
Todd, you've been working on Hungry Planet, or at least sort of the concept for 15 years, but you said it's only been in the last few that you sort of took the covers off? What happened? What made it time to do that? Why is now the time for Hungry Planet?
When we started this, everyone thought we were crazy They're like plant-based meats, what's that about? Why would you work on that problem? Yet it was very clear to us that our conventional food system consumes enormous amounts of resources. As we started to work on this, we found that the food that we were creating was absolutely spectacular, even seven, eight years ago.
But when we talked with people about it, they had no idea what we were talking about. We'd go talk with chefs, we’d talk with grocers. More often than not, the response that we’d get is ‘OK, plant-based meats, those are animals that you're feeding plants to.’
That was true, even 48 months or so ago. It's really difficult to launch something when there's no frame of reference for what this food is about.
Having been in the software industry for a long time and having done a lot of business in Silicon Valley, I had a lot of investors come to me and say, ‘Why don't you come to Silicon Valley and do what Beyond [Meat] and Impossible are doing.’ Many of you maybe are familiar with those two companies, they both have raised over $2 billion each to launch a much narrower selection than what we're doing.
We decided we didn't want that on our cap table. We knew that our food was great. Let's let the market get broadly educated first. That's a heavy, heavy lift when a new industry is being created and people have no frame of reference for what you're doing.
So why now is that lift has happened. More often than not, when we talk with people they now know what a plant-based meat is. But most people have been really disappointed by what they've had. Most of it just hasn't delivered on the promise of what you would expect if a company had $2 billion to create something. It should just knock your socks off.
The market was educated. The time was right. We knew our food was ready. It was time to take the covers off and start working and bringing it to retail foodservice and then also working with some industrial clients.
So you haven't moved us to Silicon Valley and you haven't raised billions but you did do our recent capital raise. Tell us a little bit about that deal.
The first funding that we took, for over a decade I funded it with some of my friends. We then in 2019 and 2020, when we were getting geared up knowing that it was time to launch, we brought in about $8 million in a convertible note from a variety of friends and angels, including some people in St. Louis. So thank you very much for those who participated in that.
Then as we were really getting ready to push hard, we went out and we did a $15 million raise that was very quickly closed by just two investors, one of them being Post Holdings here in St. Louis. A great team to work with. And another called TRIREC, which is Impact Fund out of Singapore. Since then we brought it a little bit more. In total, we've raised about $30 million. It pales in comparison to anyone else in this category. Yet what we offer is much broader than anybody else.
How can you compete with with them when they have that much capital?
I’d like to think it's just good Midwestern sensibilities. When you go and you promise to investors crazy returns, and you raise two billion, you just can't sleep at night, probably, because you're thinking, how is this really going to work?
We had a plan where we knew what it was going to take. And because we de-risked the deal before we went and took other people's money, we actually knew that the food was great. We knew that we had nine different protein types. We knew that we had the nutritional profile. We knew that it would work in every cuisine in any venue anywhere on the planet. So all that was already proven. The money that we raised was really just to build the team, build the co-man network, and then start rolling it out.
So yeah, $2 billion. I've got no idea where all that money went. I'm sure their investors are wondering that as well.
As you look at the economic situation, the timing of sort of unwrapping your business and going to market, do you have any concerns with what you're seeing? Or do you feel like you're just kind of at the beginning of a wave in your industry that that's going to continue to grow?
Obviously, there are headwinds out there in capital markets that make it more challenging to raise money for just about any type of startup right now.
The other headwind, of course, is in our sector of plant-based meats, there's only one public company, which is Beyond. Their news has just kind of continued to degrade for a lot of reasons: the quality of the product, the execution of that. So that's created interesting challenges when we're talking with customers.
But we found that the underlying demand is still there. It's still growing very rapidly. We launched in the summer with Lion’s Choice here in town. We do an Italian meatball sub with them, which has been really well received. We work with Sandals Resorts, for example, where they sell just an amazing amount of our food. We recently closed LEGOLAND.
We're finding that there really is very strong underlying demand for this type of food. But you’re just never sure what's around the corner. I think anybody who's done a startup, plans never go the way that you think they're going to go. As Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth. And we've taken our fair share of blows as people are trying to figure out exactly what is this category. Is this short-term fad? Is it long term trend? But all the data that we see continues to substantiate that this is a long-term trend. People want to eat healthier. They enjoy meat, and if you can give them that delicious, satisfying meal without any sort of sacrifice, there's a lot of headway ahead of us.
But it's not the easiest macroeconomic environment for any startup right now.
What's your next step with the company?
For us, I think the most exciting next step is what we're looking at internationally. The United States is clearly the biggest market in the world, but when we talk with customers internationally, there's a huge opportunity. Places like Singapore have initiatives where they are wanting to become food secure. They want to be able to do that by the end of this decade. Having discussions with them is really, really interesting.
I was in the Middle East last year. I'm heading over in a couple of days to meet with some folks over there. The meetings that we're having in that region are absolutely fascinating. I was meeting with the Minister of Foreign Trade of one of the countries in the Middle East a year ago, and it was kind of a 15- to 20-minute obligatory, welcome, we'd love to have you here. As he started to learn more and more about what we were doing and the success that we were having, he actually extended that meeting to about an hour and a half, and held off a delegation from South Korea that was there to actually sign a trade deal.
That's pretty extraordinary. When you get that kind of reception from international markets, you understand that you're solving a real problem for these countries that are absolutely food insecure. They know that they need to solve that problem. In the Middle East, for example, when COVID hit, they were using all their commercial airlines to fly in food and doing it very, very quietly so that their populations wouldn't panic. That's not a comfortable position to be in, if you're the ruler of that country.
It's exciting to have those conversations and we think that we can play a significant role in key regions around the world to help bring food security.
We only have a couple of minutes left. We've got a lot of other entrepreneurs and founders in the room, investors, some of the some people who will be advising them, what piece of advice can you leave about building strong organizations?
It's having a mindset that is ready to deal with everything that's going to come your way that's unforeseen.
In our case, literally, as we were launching the State of Missouri passed legislation that makes what I do, technically illegal. I can get thrown in jail for that. Figuring out how do you navigate that.
We shipped our first container load out to food service 10 days before COVID hit. How do you navigate that? Then literally 48 hours before we closed our Series A, our lead co-manufacturer burned to the ground. I thought our team was pulling a joke on me. How do you navigate that? I called my attorney I said that sounds material to me. I probably need to disclose it, don't I? He said, ‘Absolutely.’
Just having that mindset that things are going to come out of the blue and surprise you. You’ve got to be ready to deal with it and having a great team in place is going to make that possible.